Sara and Bethany’s first dance as a married couple took place in a circle of loved ones.
Sara Palmer panicked when Bethany Stevens popped the question to her a year after their first date. “I cannot keep a secret, so I told her beforehand,” says Stevens, who has osteogenesis imperfecta. “She freaked out, wasn’t ready, thought it was too soon. I was so angry, and crying. By the time we got to the fountain near the pretty bridge in Central Park, where I was going to propose, she said she needed more time and to please not bring it up for another four or five months.”
Not too long after that, Stevens, 32, a visiting professor at the Center for Leadership in Disability, housed at Georgia State University, flew out to the Bay area in California and burst into tears while visiting with a friend of hers, Sunny Taylor. “Last day of the trip Sunny says I want you to wear something you feel pretty in and we’ll go to the park. I had no idea what she was doing, so I made her get a six pack of beer. I was grumbling … whoever we have to talk to I just know they’ll be stupid people, growl growl growl. Then comes Sara up the hill and she’s singing Led Zepp, ‘If the sun refused to shine, I would still be loving you. When mountains crumble to the sea, there will still be you and me.’ Then she said, ‘Will you marry me,’ and I said yes! There was a whole crowd there in the park who knew me, so we had a whole crowd clapping.”
Now that’s how you propose.
What Stevens remembers most about her wedding, which took place on July 30, 2011, is how stressful it was. “The events leading up to it, not the actual ceremony, which was wonderful,” says Stevens. “We told love stories. Instead of vows, we told how we fell in love, and so there was laughter.” Weddings are stressful for everyone, regardless of the situation, and brides often bear the brunt of that. But in addition to all of the typical jitters, Stevens notes that her situation also was fraught with fears of being rejected, since Stevens was marrying another woman. And Palmer’s family had to deal with her not only marrying a woman, but a woman who uses a wheelchair.
Photo by Pedro Gomes
Joana’s friends gently carried Shannon over the side of a cliff and down a narrow path so the couple could enjoy a beautiful beach in Portugal.
“It was stressful leading up to the day because of our assumptions that our parents were homophobic or ableist,” says Stevens. She quickly adds there was no overt rejection. “They showed up, but didn’t call it a wedding. People have no idea what a gay marriage looks like, so there were no expectations, but it hurt that there were no expectations.”
“This was our first big proclamation of love in front of all of them,” says Stevens. “It was our chosen family and our parents that we were sort of pledging to, if that is even the right word. It was a way of publicly saying this is real, please get with it.”
“While there certainly was a lot of stress involved, it really was amazing to be around so many people that were so happy for us,” says Palmer, 31, who recently earned a master’s in film studies. “It made me realize how much I tend to limit my expectations that people will be supportive of my relationship. I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude.”
Since same-sex marriage isn’t legal where they live, Stevens and Palmer had their ceremony at the Solarium in Decatur, Ga., about five blocks from their house, and then married again later in Washington, D.C., where such marriages are legal.
We'll Make it Work
Shannon Moore, 36, and Joana Cardoso, 31, met in college. “I lived in the dorm to save money,” says Moore, “and Joana was a resident assistant. I don’t remember what happened, but I had been upset and she held the door for me. I zoomed in, didn’t say anything, and she thought I was rude.” About a year later, they started to run into each other more often, and began talking a bit. “One day she asked, where are you going? A bar. Oh, which one? I told her, and she showed up, and I shouted, ‘Hey, it’s my RA! Shots for everyone!’ And so we started just hanging out.”
The bar wasn’t accessible, so Moore, who has juvenile arthritis, would park outside and fellow students would carry her to a bar stool, and when she needed to, they’d carry her to the bathroom. “There was always a rigamarole … who’s most sober? That’s who would carry me in. One day, all right, it’s about that time, they carry me in. Then Joana comes in, using the restroom. Blah blah, we’re talking, drunk. I ask if she can help me button my fly, and hell with it, that’s our first kiss.”
Liza and Kate share a kiss on their big day.
The couple hopes to remain in Campbell, Calif., which Moore says is the most accessible town she’s ever seen. But Joana, a citizen of Portugal, may not be able to stay in the U.S. much longer, so they are prepared to move. Even if the couple could marry in California, it wouldn’t help Cardoso, since immigration is handled by the feds, and the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act specifically prohibits federal recognition of a state-sanctioned same-sex marriage.
“Our relationship has been put to the test so many times because of not being able to get married, it’s ridiculous,” says Moore. “We wouldn’t have to be scared that she’d have to leave. But this time we agreed she is not leaving by herself. I’d go with her and we’d make it work.”
If they did move to Portugal, they already have a support system in place — Cardoso still has good friends there, and her family has accepted Moore. “Her friends have taken me places I can’t even believe exist. Like, there’s this place at the end of a country road and it’s a huge cliff that goes down and turns into a beach,” she says. They didn’t want Moore to miss out on how beautiful it is, so they carried her down a narrow, rocky path. “It was the stupidest thing we’ve ever done, but it was great. That’s the kind of friends and family that’s over there. They all pitch in, they all help, they don’t make me feel different.” That’s good, since Portugal is not a very accessible nation at this time.
Also, they couldn’t be as open in Portugal as they can in California. “That’s the culture, it’s very religious. But her brother and our huge circle of friends know and don’t care. The older generation, they don’t know, and we’d rather they didn’t know. I was disowned by my mom’s mom when she found out, so we don’t mess with the grandmas.”
Either Way, They're Going to Stare
Liza McCollum and Kate Allbright met in college 10 years ago, had a commitment ceremony in 2005, and then, when it became legal in New Jersey, entered into a civil union in 2010. “It’s a civil union, not marriage, and the state has made that very clear,” says McCollum, wryly.
Except that they’re lesbians and McCollum has spina bifida, their story could be the plot of a romance novel. First they became friends, meeting each other through their college’s gay-straight alliance. Then disaster struck, as Liza developed a bone infection that led to the loss of her leg. “I told the alliance I am leaving as I didn’t know when I’d come back, and I’d be coming back as an amputee. Kate was one of the very few people who stayed in touch with me the whole time I was home,” says McCollum, a freelance disabilities awareness and education consultant. “She made an effort to be part of my life and my friend when I really needed one, and that blossomed into a relationship.”
Their families are supportive, although McCollum’s mother struggled initially. “My dad couldn’t care less, but it took her a minute to wrap her head around it,” says McCollum, who identifies as bisexual. “She said she didn’t want my life to be any harder than it had to be, because people might be mean to me. She forgot about my disability. I told her, ‘Mom, people are mean to me every day, they stare at me every day.’”
Early on in their relationship. McCollum and Allbright were in a restaurant waiting for a table and sat with their arms linked. “We were being stared at,” recalls McCollum. “I told her I should mention people will stare at us a lot because I have a disability.” Allbright answered they might be staring since they’re both women, it could be one or the other. “So it’s a toss-up,” says McCollum.
And speaking of disability, it’s rough not knowing other couples like themselves. “Having one partner with a disability and one without is pretty much one of the only big struggles in our marriage. And because having a disability isn’t as talked about as other topics, it’s been hard for us to find people like us who are in a same-sex relationship where one has a disability and one does not,” says McCollum. “We know we can’t possibly be the only ones on earth in this type of relationship. We’re wondering, where are you guys?”
“Like we’ll go to a disability conference and everyone is either a family member or caregiver, and there isn’t anyone that’s a spouse,” says Allbright. “That’s been the only real … well, not quite struggle. As a social worker I am involved with a lot of different areas of disability and there are so many support groups out there, but I wish there was one for spouses. I wish there were more resources, more support. I can’t be the only person in a relationship like this. But this is what we have, this is what we’ve worked with, there is no other way.”
It's Just Our Life
Paula Larson and her partner Julie Westcott have been together nine years and have been domestic partners since moving to Washington state in 2008 — “literally making us card-carrying lesbians,” quips Larson. Now that marriage is legal in their state, as of this past November, they will take advantage of gaining those rights, but aren’t in a hurry.
Paula and Julie joke that being legal domestic partners makes them “card carrying lesbians.”
“I personally never wanted to get married — never,” says Larson, who was born with spina bifida and developed tethered spinal cord in her 30s. “I never saw myself as someone’s ‘wife.’ Although I generally grew up surrounded by stable, happy heterosexual relationships, I just never saw any appeal in marriage. In many ways I still don’t.”
Larson says she doesn’t like the idea of the government, her fellow citizens, or anyone defining her relationship with her partner. “No law or ceremony will make us more committed, any more a couple, any happier than we have already done for ourselves,” she says. At this point getting married would be simply a legal contract to protect their rights. And as long as DOMA is the law of the land, a state marriage wouldn’t be sufficient, anyway. “The Supreme Court is hearing a DOMA case this session and I’m hopeful that DOMA will fall. It has prevented Julie from getting on my health insurance as a spouse, which is totally unfair.”
The couple met while playing flag football, and ran into each other for about four or five years as they both played softball. “Julie was always someone I wished I could get to know better,” says Larson. Then finally came the day Julie said ‘hi,’ which led to a six and a half hour long dinner, “and we’ve pretty much been together since.”
And what role does disability play in their relationship? Not much, they say. “As my body starts to fail, she quietly and without complaint started to do the things I could no longer physically do ... well, she did complain a little about raking the leaves. And when I needed to leave Oregon to go back to school here in Tacoma, she quit her job, left her life there and came with me. She has supported me in my physical trials unfailingly — often she’s been far more supportive of me than I have been of myself,” says Larson. “I can’t imagine life without her.”
It’s no big deal. “I don’t think it’s any different than being with someone without a disability,” says Wescott. “Paula’s condition has changed so slowly that the changes just seem normal to me. It’s just our life and we deal with whatever comes up.”
Someday … Maybe
Back in 2003, Martha Humes, 41, was a research scientist for Pfizer when she contracted West Nile virus while moving from Michigan to Portland, Ore. “A week after I got to Portland I couldn’t move anything from my neck down. Pretty much from that time until recently I worked on trying to find different types of therapy and programs to try to gain movement back.” She changed her career from research to social work, and went back to Detroit to get services from the Center for Spinal Cord Injury Recovery.
“I moved back to Detroit because I have amazing friends and tons of support — they were able to fund my therapy for a year. And that’s where I met Sue. It wasn’t what I was planning on. I took a medical leave from graduate school thinking I’d be back in six months. Then I met Sue, and that’s that.” Sue Harrington, 46, a physical therapist, was working on her doctorate at the time, and Humes stresses that Harrington was never her PT.
And this is where the story gets a bit convoluted. Humes had dated women before and after she began using a wheelchair, but Harrington, who was married at the time, never had. Typically, those are two red flags, since conventional wisdom says that first relationship with a woman probably won’t last, especially if it’s at the tail end of a straight marriage.
“I knew her marriage was being dissolved over a period of time,” says Humes. “We had several conversations about there being some connection going on that neither of us could really define. I told her, if it’s not me, I don’t care, but everyone has a right to be happy. Life is too short to go through living with a husband that’s more like a roommate — and that was the catalyst for her to leave that relationship.”
Equal marriage isn’t legal in their state right now, so Martha and Sue may take a road trip very soon.
There was a bit of a culture shock for both women, since Humes had immersed herself into the whole music festival, comedienne Kate Clinton concerts, and softball playing lesbian scene since she came out in the early 1990s. But it was all new for Harrington. “She wasn’t wearing rainbow socks in college, or rainbows on everything,” laughs Humes, referencing how people who recently come out often are rainbow-crazy. And, yes, Humes introduced Harrington to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which is almost a rite of passage in some parts of the lesbian and feminist community.
It was hard becoming disabled after coming out, since much of her identity was built around sports. “I’m much less confident, not that I was terribly confident before the chair,” says Humes. “But before I was a Midwest lesbian, and in that community you’re fit, young and agile. Sue’s very confident, so she helps build me up. She is sure of herself and doesn’t give a shit what people say.” Plus it’s hard for Humes to have the barrier of the wheelchair between her and Harrington. “I can’t just stand up and hug her in a parking lot, so that really blows.”
Harrington’s confident attitude helped make her coming out process easier, especially with her parents. “My mom had a hard time at first. But I don’t really feel like I need their approval. I didn’t even ask their opinion, I just did it. They never really questioned me,” says Harrington.
For Humes, it was a bit tougher. Her first impression of whether she’d be accepted was formed by her hometown Episcopalian church. “I remember as a kid there was a vote about whether they’d let gays worship in our church, and the church voted it down,” she says. Today, the Episcopalian church is among the leaders pushing toward full inclusion of gays and lesbians, and even consecrated its first gay bishop, Gene Robinson, back in 2003.
So attitudes against gays and lesbians have changed, and are still changing, for the better, with more progress being made every year. And attitudes toward people with disabilities are changing as well. It’s possible to imagine a day when none of that stuff matters anymore, and people can simply be free to be who they are and live how they choose.
Still, for Humes and Harrington, it will be a while longer until they can marry. Currently Humes works to transition people out of nursing homes for the Center for Independent Living in Key Largo, and gay marriage probably won’t come to Florida, or any neighboring states, any time soon. But that’s OK, it’s an excuse for the couple to take a road trip.
“We’ll probably get married in Vermont this summer, or someplace like that,” says Humes. “We have friends who live in Boston, too, so maybe there.”
Click here to read the second part of this month's cover story: "What Great Sex Really Is: A Journey from Teenage Paralysis" by Gary Karp.